Advice from a Dinosaur?

By my standards, today’s world is technologically highly evolved. Very highly! With email in its infancy only a couple of decades ago, and long-distance phone calls costly, we dinosaurs mainly communicated by what is now disparaged as snail mail, if not in person. There was no Internet. Putting your résumé on a compact disc was not an option—indeed, to “burn a disc” had not entered the lexicon. A serious literature search involved many mind-numbing hours in a library (I know: “What’s a library?”). Computers were unimaginably slow.

It is not just technology that has changed. Until the latter 1960s, for instance, widely held memories of the successful Manhattan Project, and worries spawned by the Soviet launch of Sputnik (in 1957), supported many, many dollars for physics and for science more broadly. Landing a tenure-track job, and even winning tenure itself, was not an especially taxing project for the fresh science PhD of that blessed era.

This perspective begs a serious question: Can you expect to find an effective mentor among scientists who succeeded in the technological and historical climate of two to four decades ago? The answer is yes, I contend, provided you narrow your search from those who are merely older to congenial researchers whose success has not clouded their historical and personal outlook. Notwithstanding an utter lack of interest in maintaining a Facebook page, a scientific elder can offer help in establishing a personal network of scientific contacts, in distinguishing an exciting research idea from a pedestrian one, in critiquing your oral and written expression, and so forth. That an elder researcher’s path to tenure was relatively easy need not translate into his or her inability to distinguish good luck in emerging into the job market at a particularly blessed moment from having possessed superlative intellectual capacity and a clever career strategy.

 

Need I say that there are also plenty of scientific elders whose experience was not so different from your own, and who don’t have to make a special effort to understand what you are facing? I am one of them. Despite receiving a PhD when times were still good, in December 1967, I made the “mistake” of accepting a postdoctoral position in Paris instead of immediately looking for a tenure-track job. I had a wonderful stay in France, but at the cost of then having to find a permanent research job in the hard times of the early

1970s instead of the easy ones of just a couple of years before. Not a seer, I had managed to place myself on the wrong side of a cusp in funding levels—and the right side for gaining an understanding of what a starting scientist must do in a tough economic environment to win a permanent place in the research community.

So, how did my quest come to a happy conclusion?

In 1973, the U.S. economy was headed steeply downward; the Vietnam War was working toward its end (“not with a bang but a whimper”); the Watergate scandal was just months from forcing Richard Nixon to resign the presidency; and I, at age 31, was looking for a permanent job in physics. After two-plus years as a soft-money assistant professor, I’d been informed that when the three-year National Science Foundation grant that paid my salary expired, funds would not be available to move me to the tenure track. (Does this sound at all familiar?)

There were  not  many  suitable  jobs. I   recall  a  trip  to Texas to interview at the University of Houston, Texas A&M, and UT–Austin. At each stop, I gave my talk, met privately with staff, felt I had done well, and was then informed that the position in question had evaporated. “Sorry about that!” In December, I spent five weeks on a research visit to the Stanford Applied Physics Department. One Sunday in Palo Alto, I noticed a job ad in the newspaper (That’s right—newspaper. Craigslist, need I remind you, did

not exist in 1973.) for a scientist who would be hired to advise a mayor on the likely impact of urban development plans. The position was once again based on a finite-term grant. But, after two, two-year postdoctoral positions and a three-year assistant professorship, I was inured to the nomadic life, and so I applied. Despite my lack of credentials in urban planning, my interview, high up in San Francisco’s stunning Transamerica building, went rather well, I thought, until I was asked, “What would you do if, a few weeks from now, you were offered a job in physics? Would you take it?” I gave an honest answer— the wrong answer, namely, “Yes.” End of interview— back to despair.

But then, a bolt from the blue—a former postdoctoral colleague who had moved to Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico decided to quit research and become a medical doctor. He proposed my name as someone to fill his position, a permanent one. By then, I knew what it takes to have a career in science. I could articulate my research direction. I understood that as a theorist, I needed to persuade experimenters that I would be helpful to them, and also that I grasped ideas they did not. So, I prepared and burnished a talk. The first two-thirds of it were introductory, pictorial, and conceptual—deliberately designed to appeal to my hoped-for experimental colleagues. The last third was heavily theoretical, with equations, even, aimed at persuading listeners that in me, they would be buying expertise they themselves lacked.

These tactics worked! I was offered, and with alacrity accepted, a position at Sandia. On arrival, I did my utmost to fulfill the promises I’d made in my interview— and as of the year 2011, at age 68, I’ve been a research scientist there for a very rewarding 36 years.

What lessons reside in this autobiographical extract and happy ending? One, not much of a surprise in a Facebook era, is that networking is an excellent way to gain opportunities. Responding to job ads may have the desired effect. Knowing someone is better.

Another lesson is the importance of being serious. Why would a hiring officer consider an applicant for an urban planning job who at the drop of a hat is prepared to return to the physics career he really wants? I wouldn’t.

A third notion is that even in a market where few positions are available, the number is unlikely to be zero—and it is the best-prepared applicant who will win the competition. Having a reasonably good idea of what my Sandia interviewers would be hoping for, I spent serious time developing an appealing job talk. This was far from wasted effort.

Understand that the probability of landing a permanent job is the product of two factors. One is how many suitable positions are available. The other is your probability per job of being the successful candidate. There is essentially nothing you can do to affect the first factor. (Well . . . you might write your senator. Good luck with that!) Accordingly, it is a focus on the second factor that makes sense. Despairing over the unavailability of jobs wins you nothing. Preparing for an opportunity might—and in large measure, that is what this book is about. Its basic themes are:

  1. . Know thyself!
  2. . Understand and respect the needs of your audience.

Since my personal saga of 1973–1974, the U.S. and world economies have seen good times and bad. Twenty years on, with the United States once again in recession, the first printing of this book found a receptive readership. After the subsequent Internet boom came the Internet bust, and today we are experiencing and—only maybe—slowly emerging from the “Great Recession” of 2008–2009. Once again, job opportunities for freshly minted scientists are scarce, and, accordingly, I am guessing you will find the advice from this dinosaur relevant, even in a world that, since 1993, has outwardly changed greatly.

 

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